SOUTH BEND – There were questions surrounding what type of reaction Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees would receive from the Fighting Irish fans prior to his taking the field at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday for the final time.
The much-maligned quarterback ended up being received well – and that is what he deserved. For even though Rees was never perfect in his career, he cared deeply about the Notre Dame football program and in the end he did much more good than bad.
That belief encapsulates not only Rees, but the entire 2013 Notre Dame squad. And that is exactly how the Irish played on Saturday.
This group isn't perfect, as its predecessor ended up being through the regular season a year ago, but dog gone it, these guys care about the university and the football program, and more often than not, they play far better than they do poorly.
This group did, after all, figure out ways to beat Michigan State, USC and Arizona State, each of whom have battled to play for conference championships this season.
“We needed to play Notre Dame football,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “(Being) enthusiastic and physical, and I thought we did that. We made some plays when we needed to.”
The Irish (8-3) got a number of big contributions – particularly from its decimated defense - and held off a charging BYU squad 23-13 in front of 80,795 fans.
Not a single member of the Notre Dame fan base is thrilled with a team that will more than likely lose four games this year (the Irish close their regular season Saturday at Stanford), but every Notre Dame follower has to have some level of appreciation of how this group has persevered through adversity.
This team lost its starting quarterback (expelled Everett Golson) before Memorial Day and it began losing players to injury in droves in the early days of training camp. The latter problem continued right through Saturday, as starting center Nick Martin was lost to a knee injury and sophomore Matt Hegarty filled in admirably.
“We had a lot of guys out there with very thin resumes,” Kelly said. “But they built them up today. It was really good to see.”
On Saturday, that “next man in” concept was evident when former walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt made a critical tackle on a third-and-five at the Irish 12-yard line, as BYU (8-4) threatened to trim its deficit to 20-14 midway through the third quarter. Schmidt's play forced the Cougars to kick a field goal.
A few minutes later, a similar scenario unfolded, but this time it was a budding superstar (former Bishop Luers High School stud Jaylon Smith), who stepped up with a stop on a BYU third-down inside the Irish 10-yard line. Neither Schmidt nor Smith envisioned themselves playing critical roles this season, but there they were. That's this team in a nutshell. It's a team comprised of guys doing their best when unexpectedly called upon (Rees wrote the foreword in that book four seasons ago).
“This is the way that we've got to play football,” Kelly said. “This is Notre Dame football. This is the way that we need to play. This is what we are capable of playing, a much more physical brand (the Irish rushed for 235 yards) of football.
“Quite frankly, our team knew that, and they responded accordingly.”
Notre Dame demonstrated one last valiant act for its frigid fans that braved single-digit wind chill temperatures on Senior Day, as the Cougars attempted a field goal in the final minutes. Notre Dame freshman defensive lineman Jarron Jones, who had replaced injured All-American Louis Nix III, reached up with his big paw and blocked the kick to stifle any hopes the visitors had remaining.
It was a huge play made by someone, who neither he, nor the coaching staff, ever thought would be in that position at that moment. The play preserved this group's 20th victory in its last 23 regular season games, as well as its 11th in the past 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.
“Opportunity,” Kelly said bluntly. “When (Jones) got an opportunity, it was a next man in situation. Jarron, we felt like he was coming on, and he played exceedingly well.”
Apparently, the youngster has learned something from being in this program.